Queen to Two Kings

Ξ December 21st, 2007 | → 2 Comments | ∇ International Terroirs, Wine History |

Once upon a time there was a beautiful girl named Alienor who was the daughter of the powerful Duke Guillaume of Aquitaine and Poitou. She lived during the 12th Century and became the Queen to the King Louis VII in 1137 and then annulled the marriage on the basis they were 3rd cousins only to marry the future King of England, Henry II who she was even more closely related. Actually they all were related quite closely, but Henry was 13 years her junior and you have to give Eleanor as she was now known her due, she made off with a royal toy boy. It’s a lot more complicated than that, but I like my version that she got tired of one King and exchanged him for a much younger King. I mean, who does that? Completely awesome!

The 12th century was the time of the great crusades, the court of Thomas of Beckett’s murder, and two very famous sons of Eleanor’s, Richard otherwise known as “Lionheart” (ringing a bell now) and John, both Kings of England. This was a time of dangerous politics and Eleanor was no wallflower. She tried to overthrow her husband and place her children on the throne of England. Why would she do this? Henry was having a very public affair with a courtier and there was talk of divorce. With the possibilities of new heirs and the bitterness of being cheated on, I think Eleanor took care of her business. Gives a new meaning to that old saying “Hell hath no Fury like a Woman Scorned” doesn’t it? She was placed under house arrest by her husband for 15 years and separated from her children. Henry died during a jousting tournament and Richard the Lionheart ascended the throne and immediately freed his mother and made her Regent during his 3rd Crusade. When Richard died, John was named heir. Eleanor had a lot to do with that too, but we’re just hitting high points.

So what does all this ancient medieval history have anything to do with Bordeaux? Everything. Without England having the Aquitaine as part of its lands, we would not have Bordeaux as we have it today. Aquitaine was an independent duchy (think Luxembourg) when Eleanor inherited it after her fathers’ death those lands encompassed what is now 1/3 of modern France.
Now you see how Eleanor married two Kings. In the heart of those lands are the Gironde and the port of Bordeaux and La Rochelle. She was a powerful woman during this age of men, war and crusades. Eleanor’s father was clever and insured his daughter’s independence; because only until Eleanor’s heir advanced to the throne could the duchy be incorporated into the country the heir ruled. Until the heir ruled, the Aquitaine remained Eleanor’s.

Bordeaux didn’t become important as a wine port until after Eleanor’s death in 1204. Eleanor didn’t favor Bordeaux; she, like her father gave favor to the port of La Rochelle. Salt was one of La Rochelle’s main commodities and from Roman times to her day salt was expensive and valuable. It was King John who opened the port of Bordeaux to royal favor by allowing access to the English market. But it wasn’t until 1224 when Louis VIII captured Poitiers that Bordeaux’s fortunes really changed. La Rochelle sided with France, Bordeaux with England. La Rochelle stayed with the Kingdom of France, the Aquitaine was reduced in size and Bordeaux entered a golden era with the rise of the merchant class, known as the Bourgeois. Yes, it was much more complicated than that, but you get the idea.

With Bordeaux remaining loyal to England, it gained tremendous favor and power and Bordeaux wine (there was other trade as well) began to flow into England. During this time, the Medoc didn’t have many vines nor was it the size it is today. The wines produced from the area around the city of Bordeaux were from Graves, Entre deux Mers and Blaye. But this was only a small segment, most of the wines came from the surrounding areas including Cahors and Bergerac and further down into the Languedoc and Perigord. But Bordeaux wanted to promote the local wine, restrict the outsiders and improve the coffers of the city, so trade restrictions were set forth specifying when the outlaying regions were allowed to bring their wine to Bordeaux for export with many other conditions.

The newly active Bourgeois (Merchant class) devised rules and regulations to promote Bordeaux and formed a easy to collect tax system that was favored by parliament. Many of the rules were very unfair including barrel regulations which other regions shipping through the port of Bordeaux could not have as many hoops securing the seals of the wood staves creating leaks and accelerating the aging process. Many wines from the outside areas were never sold being allowed to sour and be dumped before finding a buyer. Subsequently Bordeaux wine flourished in England and approximately 40,000 tonneaux a year was imported. 1,000 tonneaux is equal to approximately 1 million bottles; the bottles were of equitable volume to today’s bottles. All the wine was shipped in barrel; chateau bottling didn’t arrive until the 20th century.

So, that is how England came to own a big chunk of France for 300 years. It was only until the end of the 100 Years War and the defeat of Bordeaux’s governor, John Talbot, the first Earl of Shrewsbury, at the Battle of Castillon (just outside St. Emilion) in 1453 was the duchy removed from English rule. Bordeaux remained mostly independent and was annexed to the Kingdom of France in 1653 when Louis XIV entered the city. As a side note, the Earl lost his life during the battle, but his name lives on with the famous St. Julien property he owned while Governor. Chateau Talbot has been consistently producing beautiful wine since the Earl owned it. We’ll have more on the rise of Bordeaux in the next installment. Oh! And a Pope who made wine enters the scene.



2 Responses to ' Queen to Two Kings '

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  1. Greybeard said,

    on December 21st, 2007 at 3:01 pm

    Great stuff Donna, a damn good read and, for someone who likes history as well as wine, the perfect post.
    Happy Holidays, Karl.

  2. on January 16th, 2008 at 7:39 am

    [...] blog range widely in their interest. I was personally and finally taken with the blog upon reading a fairly long post about the royal history of the Bordeaux region that went on for five very long paragraph before wine or vines was ever mentioned. What impressed [...]

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